HBO Documentary Reviews: Kennedy and Reagan

Posted on February 18, 2011

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In the last couple of days, I watched two HBO documentaries: “Kennedy: A President to Remember” and “Reagan”. HBO Documentaries are not known for their right-leaning views, but it’s interesting that the tone of nostalgia (not as much spoken as shown) that opened the Kennedy film seemed wistful, begging premium-cable-subscribing, Bill-Maher-watching America to remember a time when the President was universally admired, both at home and abroad. The Reagan piece, in contrast, begins with a montage of politicians, commentators and other public figures invoking the name of Reagan for their own purposes. This opening sequence sets the tone for the difference between the two films – Kennedy and his advisers, family and opponents are allowed to speak for themselves, while Reagan is dissected, cut and spliced, commented upon, defended and maligned without giving the man himself, or his contemporaries, much voice.

Kennedy also is shown to us as a politician first. Not much of his early life is shown, and we seem to walk in on him quickly ascending as a rising star to Nixon’s fumbling, sleepy planet, giving us no glimpse at early failures, insecurities or blunders.  His campaign speeches ring powerfully pro-America, and despite the civil-rights turmoil of the 60’s, he admits the failures of his country but never apologizes for her. He insists that she move forward, unapologetically insisting that she is the greatest country in the world.

The narrator stays out of Kennedy’s way, allowing us to see him in campaign spats with Nixon, later, when he gets elected, we watch him laugh at what he considers an eccentric question from a member of the White House Press Corps  – a surprising moment of lost decorum included in a mere 90-minute film.  We get a few of the obligatory shots of Jackie O., charming as always, and his small children running around the White House in a nod to his unprecedented youth and likability. But the strongest moments come in the rare footage from Oval Office discussions – how to handle the civil rights tensions at the University of Alabama, the Cuban Missile Crisis and always, the threat from the Soviet Union in the Middle East. The narrator is silent and we are enraptured, watching 50-year-old history unfold and, because we are left alone with the scratchy recorded voices of these decision-makers, we are free to make our own opinions about what transpired. After one gnarly set of foreign policy decisions, Kennedy tells the Press Corps, “we have made an error, but an error is not a mistake unless we refuse to correct it”. Wouldn’t that be a great thing to hear a politician say today? The film ends without any of the terrible footage of the assassination, but with the tearful faces of Americans at his funeral and the sound of cannon-fire in remembrance of a fallen leader.

Reagan’s moment in the HBO spotlight, begins, as I said before, with much more controversy than JFK’s, and the film seems bent on both bringing the Reaganite love down a peg and reducing the man himself. Early portraits about Reagan are endearing but not particularly inspiring – one moment he is portrayed as a clever puppet playing a role and the next as a driven (though still likable) idealogue. Unlike the Kennedy film, which let us sit and observe unmolested, Reagan has an army of critics and admirers, determined to express their views about who he actually was. His son, Ron Jr., is frequently interviewed, and seems far too excited to have the cameras on himself for once, readily jumping on the Brave New World bandwagon – you know the one – your parents were probably dumb just by virtue of being your parents, question everything, talk about things so esoterically that people assume you must just be Very Smart because you never commit to a Real Point of View, (except the one that ignores your parents and questions stuff). It’s the same bandwagon that Meghan McCain has been riding for some time, much to the derision of true conservatives and false adulation of the gals on The View.

Reagan has moments that transcend any attempt to shrink him, proving why he continues to be a powerful and polarizing figure in politics. His affable grace, fearless determination, stirring speeches and truthful approach make every time he appears on screen feel hopeful and forthright. Even as economists argue (hilariously, one interviewee told us that the government nearly fell to pieces because the Laffer Curve failed and no tax-money was coming in, the next charged that Reagan raised taxes and made rich and poor people miserable alike) and his son waffles (“Am I going to turn on my dad? No. Am I troubled by his actions? Yes.”) the man himself still leaves a powerful impression. If the Reagan director would take a cue from the Kennedy biographer and let him speak for himself, the documentary would have been even more powerful.

As it was, I came away grateful for both presidents, and for those eras in American history when our leaders were proud of their country. Both films reminded me that the truth sets us free, and that we, too, as citizens of this great country, have a “rendezvous with destiny”.

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